Spring is a busy time at Common Ground. From my desk every morning I watch students arriving to school; NatureYear kids pass by as they skip up the hill to start their day in the Outdoor Classroom; students coming from other schools for a field trip often gather outside my window before heading down to the wetland, to the farm or up to the trailhead for a hike on Westrock Ridge. Parents and other visitors often stop in my office seeking directions. I monitor the trucks that drive up the hill to deliver packages or supply food to the cafeteria or pick up our garbage. Activity here on site is non-stop. While in reality it is rare that anyone enters our site without a purpose and without the knowledge of a Common Ground staff person, to some the comings and goings on our site may seem haphazard. This raises legitimate concerns about the safety and security of Common Ground’s campus, in particular given the recent rise in mass shootings across the country, concerns that Common Ground takes very seriously.
Keeping our students, staff, program participants, families and visitors to Common Ground safe is of paramount importance. We have made significant investments in our campus infrastructure with safety and security in mind. However physical infrastructure is only a small part of the solution when it comes to deterring safety threats. It is our belief that systematically supporting the development of a strong, healthy sense of community, and ensuring our students, families, staff and program participants feel connected and cared for is the most effective way to ensure the safety and security of our campus, and is the primary focus of our efforts to keep our community safe. We have drafted the following statement on campus safety and security to communicate what we have done and what we are continuously doing to address safety and security concerns here at Common Ground. Your comments on this statement would be welcome.
Common Ground staff have always made the safety of our students, staff and program participants a high priority. The years since Sandy Hook, and the rise of school shootings as a cultural phenomena, has led us to think more deeply about how to keep our community safe in the face of these new threats. One response to this new threat of violence is to follow the recommendations of “security experts” by fortifying our site and severely restricting access to our campus. This approach to campus safety and security creates a critical challenge for Common Ground by significantly impacting our ability to be outward facing and easily accessible to the many participants in our programs. In addition to our 200 high school students and 50 staff, literally hundreds of people visit our campus almost every day of the week. These visitors include children and teachers coming to Common Ground for school field trips, participants in our Nature Year program and Kids Unplugged after school program and their parents, home-school groups and volunteers on our farm among others. Our site is a natural oasis melding seamlessly with West Rock Ridge State Park that inspires our community to enjoy the outdoors and connect with nature. Our site, and the programs it supports, are designed to cultivate the next generation of environmental leaders. It is our deeply held belief that our identity as a community asset and center for environmental learning and leadership depends on ensuring our site feels welcoming, open and accessible to all. With that in mind, we have made significant improvements to our site and facility infrastructure intended to improve the safety of our campus with minimal impact how our site is used and experienced. Among other things we have:
- Installed security cameras both inside and outside school buildings as well as in the parking lot;
- Improved site lighting;
- Created a new reception area for the school that is able to monitor who enters and exits the building;
- Installed a new electronic card access system in both school buildings;
- Installed a gate that limits car access to our upper campus;
- Installed AEDs (defibrillators) in both school buildings;
- Removed hazardous trees from program areas;
- Hired a Campus Safety Manager to be on campus with students; and
- Adopted a Campus Safety and Security plan that provides guidance on how to prevent and manage threats to the safety and security of our community.
Designing and maintaining our site’s infrastructure with safety in mind is an important part of creating a safe and secure campus and we will continue to make significant investments to this end. When it comes to safety, it is our belief that perhaps even more important than our physical infrastructure is our social infrastructure: The social-emotional health of our community and its members is the best barometer of our collective safety, and in particular the safety of our school. Therefore, the primary focus of our efforts to build a safe and secure campus is to build a strong, healthy, resilient community of young people and adults.
Careful studies have identified a number of key characteristics that “school shooters” have in common. These include being withdrawn, non-participatory, isolated and/or rejected or victimized by peers. In contrast, a key factor in the social-emotional well being of a young person is a trusting, dependable relationship with one or more adults. Common Ground directly addresses both of these challenges by employing systems that support the building of strong stable relationships between adult staff and students at Common Ground High School, and that ensure student issues are quickly recognized and addressed. These systematic approaches include:
- Assigning incoming 9th graders to a guidance group that stays with the same teacher until graduation. Guidance groups are focused on the social-emotional development of students, and building the healthy relationships that are the basis of a strong community.
- Dedicating significant resources to student support. Our dedicated student support team, comprised of 8 staff, is focused on meeting student needs outside of the classroom.
- Assigning specific responsibility across multiple functions for outreach and relationship-building with students’ families. A family liaison, our student support team, and guidance teachers all have family outreach and communication a key part of their job responsibilities. We use a variety of media — from text messages, to social media, to print mail, to phone conversations, to parent events, to one on one meetings, to home visits — to build and sustain these relationships.
- A Green Jobs Corps program that provides paid work while engaging students in a robust youth leadership development curriculum.
- Adoption of a behavioral response framework that, rather than resorting to punitive consequences, is designed to repair relationships and build community well-being following incidents that have caused harm. With this restorative model all members of the community have a responsibility for keeping the community safe.
- Maintaining a Common Ground High School staff to student ratio of 1 to 5 to ensure there is ample opportunity for robust adult-student relationships to develop.
Finally, our work to create a safe campus cannot be separated from our commitment to our surrounding neighborhood, and to the neighborhoods our students call home. As Common Ground’s values statement says, “our work starts here, and ripples outward.” We are particularly committed to working with our neighbors in West Rock to build a safer and more connected community. We’ve spearheaded a Complete Streets application to the City of New Haven that promotes traffic calming and better pedestrian access, organized with neighborhood residents who are working to work on these and related issues (like lighting and cameras), and secured commitments from city and state officials to address some of our concerns. While our primarily responsibility may be to keep our students safe while they are on site — and we are proud that many people experience our campus as an oasis — we are committed to working with the broader community to ensure our students and neighbors feel safe and supported wherever they are.